Stage III and Stage IV Breast Cancer

Living Longer, Living Better

Learning you have Stage III or IV breast cancer can be devastating. But it’s important to remember that as advocacy energizes the field of breast cancer research, new treatments are emerging, offering greater hope to people with advanced breast cancer.

Stages III and IV indicate that the cancer has spread significantly within and beyond the breast. The higher the stage, the greater the tumor size and the more extensive the spread of the cancer to nearby lymph nodes, adjacent tissues, and more distant organs of the body.

Learn about:

  • Stage III breast cancer
  • Treating Stage III breast cancer
  • Stage IV breast cancer
  • Treating stage IV breast cancer
  • Stage III breast cancer

    An Accurate Diagnosis

    Learn more about the role staging, grading, and other tumor classifications play in determining treatment in Your Guide to Cancer Care.

    With Stage III breast cancer, the tumor is larger than in stages 0 through II, and the lymph nodes are affected. This level of cancer may be categorized as Stage IIIA, IIIB, or IIIC.

    Stage IIIA means that either:

    • The tumor in the breast is larger than five centimeters, or about two inches.
    • The lymph nodes are significantly affected by cancer. For instance, the lymph nodes may clump together or stick to one another or to surrounding tissue.

    Stage IIIB means that either:

    • The cancer has spread to tissue near the breast, such as the skin or the chest wall.
    • The cancer has spread extensively to lymph nodes under the arm and/or the nodes beneath the breast under the ribs.

    Stage IIIC means that cancer is present in the breast skin and chest wall. It permeates the lymph nodes around the collarbone and may also be present in lymph nodes surrounding the breastbone.

    Treating Stage III breast cancer

    If you have Stage III breast cancer, your doctor will usually recommend both local and systemic treatments. Local therapies are directed at the part of the body where the tumor is located to remove or destroy the cancer.

    Reproductive Hormones and Breast Cancer

    Learn about the estrogen-breast cancer connection.

    Systemic therapies, on the other hand, treat your whole body. Systemic treatments are especially useful for treating cancer that has spread, and they are designed to stop or slow the cancer’s progress.

    In the case of breast cancer, the local treatment your doctor will recommend will usually be surgery alone or in combination with radiation therapy to the breast and underarm. The systemic treatment may be chemotherapy, also called anti-cancer drugs. If the tumor tests positive for estrogen and/or progesterone receptors, as 75% of breast cancers do, you may also receive hormonal therapy in addition to chemotherapy. You may be given these systemic treatments before or after local treatment.

    Stage IV breast cancer

    Words to Know

    Metastasis is the spread of cancer from its place of origin through the lymphatic system to other parts of the body.

    The lymphatic system is the network of lymph nodes, tissues, and vessels that circulates lymph fluid, eliminates toxins, and produces immune cells throughout the body.

    Stage IV breast cancer, also called metastatic breast cancer, occurs when cancerous cells spread from the breast to near or distant parts of the body.

    Because metastatic breast cancer typically can’t be cured, the goals of treatment are usually to slow or halt the progress and minimize the symptoms of the disease.

    Treating stage IV breast cancer

    People with metastatic breast cancer typically receive chemotherapy and hormonal therapy to destroy cancer cells and control the spread of the disease. They may have surgery or radiation therapy to minimize the presence of cancer in the breast. They may also receive radiation to control metastatic tumors that have arisen in other parts of the body.

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